Surveillance Inc: How Western Tech Firms Are Helping Arab Dictators

As democratic movements spread in the Middle East, governments are cracking down, and that means big business for the companies who help them do it.

tunis march5 p.jpg

A computer systems coordinator at Tunisia Television in Tunis / Reuters

Reliance means vulnerability, and the activists and citizen journalists of the Arab uprisings rely heavily on the Internet and mobile technology. They use text messaging to coordinate protests, for example, or social media sites to upload the photos and videos that then make it into mainstream global media. In the first protests in Tunisia, because traditional journalists could not get access, citizen journalists filled in, using YouTube and the live-streaming platform UStream to give the world -- including, for example, the Egyptians and Syrians who later began revolts of their own -- a window into the events there.

For all of the good this technology has done, activists are also beginning to understand the harm it can do. As Evgeny Morozov wrote in The Net Delusion, his book on the Internet's darker sides, "Denying that greater information flows, combined with advanced technologies ... can result in the overall strengthening of authoritarian regimes is a dangerous path to take, if only because it numbs us to potential regulatory interventions and the need to rein in our own Western corporate excesses."

The communications devices activists use are not as safe as they might believe, and dozens of companies -- many of them based in North America and Europe -- are selling technology to authoritarian governments that can be used against democratic movements. Such tools can exploit security flaws in the activists' technology, intercept a user's communications, or even pinpoint their location. In many cases, this technology has led to the arrest, torture, and even death of individuals whose only "crime" was exercising their universal right to free speech. And, in most of these cases, the public knew nothing about it.

"The Chinese could come here and learn from you."

Recent investigations by the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News have revealed just how expansively these technologies are already being used. Intelligence agencies throughout the Middle East can today scan, catalogue, and read virtually every email in their country. The technology even allows them to change emails while en route to their recipient, as Tunisian authorities sometimes did before the revolution.

These technologies turn activists' phones against them, allowing governments to listen in on phone calls, read text messages, even scan cell networks and pinpoint callers with voice recognition. They allow intelligence agents to monitor movements of activists via a GPS locator updated every fifteen seconds. And by tricking users into installing malware on their devices -- as is currently happening in Syria - government agents can remotely turn on a laptop webcam or a cell phone microphone without its user knowing.

In Syria recently, American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed by a mortar attack that may have been targeted to the locations of their satellite phones. We don't know for sure how the Syrian army tracked them, but Lebanese intelligence had recorded Syrian officials as planning to target Western journalists, and following satellite phone signals is just one of the tech-aided ways they could have done it.

Syria and other abusive Middle Eastern regimes rely on technology companies such as Area SpA, the Italian firm that contracted with the regime there to build a surveillance center, and that pulled out only after exposure by Bloomberg News prompted protests at their Italian headquarters. There's also the American company Bluecoat Systems. When it was reported that their Internet-monitoring equipment had been re-sold to the Syrian government, a senior VP told the Wall Street Journal, "We don't want our products to be used by the government of Syria or any other country embargoed by the United States."

For all the evil of Syria's regime, it's hard to ignore the role and often the complicity of Western technology companies that can sometimes act as dictator's little helper. While Syria's use of surveillance has been particularly egregious and well-documented, this problem goes far beyond just one country. For years, Western firms have been selling surveillance equipment to the most brutal regimes. And while sales to Syria often violate sanctions policy, such companies can sell to many other authoritarian countries -- many of them U.S. and E.U. allies -- without repercussions.

Presented by

Trevor Timm & Jillian C. York

Trevor Timm works on free-speech and government-transparency issues at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Jillian C. York is the EFF's director for International Freedom of Expression.

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